Dispatches From The Heartland: Dallas Baptist

The Georgian brick facade of Horner Ballpark blends in perfectly with the campus architecture.

The Georgian brick facade of Horner Ballpark blends in perfectly with the campus architecture.

DALLAS—Driving east across the Mountain Creek Lake Bridge, approaching motorists have more than a mile to admire the pretty college campus on the hill overlooking the lake, dominated by the huge, gleaming-white, elegant Pilgrim Chapel. Completed in 2009, the $21.9 million chapel makes a striking first impression, and stands as a symbol of the impressive growth of Dallas Baptist University.

The 116-year-old school has been perched atop University Hill in southwest Dallas since 1965. The campus occupies 292 picturesque acres, upon which attractive new Georgian brick structures have sprung up at a brisk rate in recent years, as enrollment climbed from 3,721 in 1998 to 5,622 in 2012.

Nestled in the heart of campus is another recently completed jewel: Horner Ballpark, home of the DBU baseball team since 2013. Crossing through one of the three arching gateways that pass through the brick facade at the front of the stadium, and emerging onto the wide concourse overlooking 2,000 dark blue chair-back seats and four luxury suites, you get the impression that you are visiting the home of a very successful college baseball program—one that recently made three regionals in four years, and one trip to super regionals.

Patriot Field, DBU's old facility.

Patriot Field, DBU’s old facility.

But DBU made those runs to the postseason as a Division I independent, playing its home games at old Patriot Field, which people around the program describe as a set of metal bleachers with a deer blind perched atop to serve as a press box. When DBU won its regional as a No. 3 seed in 2011, it was matched up with another 3-seed in California—and neither program had facilities adequate enough to host the super regional, so they wound up playing at Santa Clara. Now, the Patriots have a state-of-the-art facility and a permanent home in a quality league—the Missouri Valley Conference. That conference affiliation makes their path to the postseason a lot smoother.

“We’re real excited about it,” Dallas Baptist coach Dan Heefner said. “A lot of the stuff that’s happened in our program, the regionals and the super regionals, we did that as an independent without a facility. Now we feel like, with this facility—and the Missouri Valley Conference is really on the rise—it’s definitely helped recruiting out.

“A lot of it, too, is just the success. We have a lot better name recognition now, so we’re getting in with these recruits here in Texas. That’s helped a lot. And it’s just a totally different feel when we get them on campus now. If we can get them here, then we feel like we’ve got a pretty good shot.”

Horner Ballpark opened in 2013.

Horner Ballpark opened in 2013.

As a private Christian school, DBU attracts a very specific set of devoted student-athletes. Before the start of games at Horner Ballpark, a prayer is said over the PA system. Player biographies on the team’s website list favorite Bible verses. But especially given DBU’s location in the heart of the Bible Belt, the school’s emphasis on religion is a selling point.

“It’s kind of a unique fit, but it’s one we really like,” Heefner said.

The Patriots also sell their developmental track record to recruits. They had six players drafted last year (led by second-rounder Jake Johansen), tied for the most of any school in Texas. They produced six draftees in 2012, too. Three of their 2009 draftees made big league debuts last summer (Vic Black, Ryan Goins and Brandon Bantz), and Heefner said a number of their most successful alumni spend offseasons working out around the program. It helps that DBU’s most famous alumnus, all-star Ben Zobrist, is Heefner’s brother-in-law (their wives are sisters).

“Those are all things that help with recruiting, but help the guys here too, just as far as the confidence it gives them, to see these guys coming back here working out in the offseason, to think they could be the next guy,” Heefner said.

The 2014 Patriots jumped out to a 15-4 start before dropping a midweek game at Texas and losing two of three this weekend to Utah Valley. They led a ninth-inning lead slip away Saturday, but they bounced back to salvage Sunday’s series finale. Heefner, who has a reputation among his peers as one of the genuinely nicest and most positive coaches in college baseball, was characteristically optimistic after Saturday’s loss, calling it “a good character check” to see how his team would respond to adversity.

Dallas Baptist has built its reputation as an offense-oriented program, often ranking among the national leaders in a variety of offensive categories, even though it always plays a quality schedule. But the Patriots lost a number of key offensive pieces from last year’s club, reloading with a solid group of junior-college transfers who are still getting their feet wet. Leading the way is physical catcher Daniel Salters, who homered and doubled Saturday. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Salters looks the part of a legitimate prospect, and he has plenty of bat speed as well as a rocket arm behind the plate. He’s just a sophomore, but he’s already 21 so he’ll be eligible for the draft this June, and he is drawing interest from scouts in the region.

“He’s been huge—that was a big pickup for us,” Heefner said. “We lost our junior catcher last year, he got drafted and signed, and we got (Salters) late in the spring, beginning of the summer. But he’s got a chance to be a special player, a lefthanded stick with the power he has. He started the year really strong. He’s just a sophomore, honestly hasn’t played a whole lot coming in here. He played in junior college, but he grew up in Africa until he was like 12, his dad was a missionary pilot there. I think the sky’s the limit for him. You saw what the body’s like, and his arm is plus-plus. Receiving-wise, he’s getting better. He’s that strong, and it’s a pretty quiet approach too. He’s not up there just just hacking, max effort. I think he’s got a shot to be real good. And he runs well, too. He’s a pretty good all-around player, we’re excited about him.”

Cy Sneed has size, savvy, stuff and the most experience on DBU's strong pitching staff.

Cy Sneed has size, savvy, stuff and the most experience on DBU’s strong pitching staff.

But DBU’s strength this season is its pitching staff, which is well-stocked with veterans and power arms. Friday starter Paul Voelker and Saturday starter Cy Sneed can both run their fastballs into the mid-90s, and the bullpen has a pair of righties with strikeout stuff in sophomores Joseph Shaw and Brandon Koch. Both of them sat in the low 90s Saturday, although Heefner said Shaw usually throws harder, and Koch’s biting low-80s breaking ball is usually much less hittable than it was Saturday. The Patriots threw three straight shutouts heading into the week, and they sport a 2.92 ERA on the season, making this a pitching-first club, rather than an offense-first squad as usual.

“For sure, it’s kind of opposite for us, where our depth is on the mound, our experience is on the mound,” Heefner said. “We’re really inexperienced at the plate. I think we’ve got some good guys offensively and they’re going to turn it around, got a chance to do a good job the second half of the season. But we’ve got three starters we feel pretty good about. For sure, the strength is our pitching staff this year.”

The Patriots open MVC play next weekend at Bradley, and they have the horses on the mound to make a real run at the conference title. Dallas Baptist has a long, proud history as a power in the NAIA and National Christian College Athletic Association levels before it completed its D-I transition in 2006. The Patriots posted 35 consecutive winning seasons before going 30-30 last year, and they are the flagship athletic program at the school—the only Division I sport on campus.

But for a program that was without a conference home from its reclassification as a D-I school until last year (when it played in the Western Athletic Conference), an MVC championship would be just the latest exciting new development at a place where development is thriving.